SONIC REDUCER One can tumble into the disconnect between the reactionary brouhaha last year regarding then-candidate Barack Obama's proposed engagement with Iran, and the reality, as Iranian-born, Indian-raised vocalist Azam Ali knows it.
"I always tell my American friends, 'People love America so much in Iran, you wouldn't be able to pay for a meal they love Americans that much,'" says the Niyaz frontperson by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and bandmate Loga Ramin Torkian and their year-old son Iman Ali. We talk days before Vice President Joe Biden proffers an olive branch to Tehran during the Munich Security Conference. "The one thing that the majority of Americans should realize is that the only country where people are pro-U.S.A. in the Middle East is Iran. The government, of course, is something very different."
"I hope this administration will start some kind of dialogue with the government of Iran," she adds. "It's really unfortunate that my country is where it is. I'd like to see it flourish and become a part of the world."
Springing from the ashes of Ali's old band Vas and Torkian's former ensemble Axiom of Choice, Niyaz is doing its part in bringing together a few seemingly divergent communities: fans of electronica awash with Eastern beats, trance heads, and listeners of traditional Persian, Indian, and Turkish sounds. Their most recent double album, Nine Heavens (Six Degrees, 2008) is the ideal musical unifier for all those parties. One disc unfurls nine electronic originals ornamented with Sufi poetry in Farsi, Urdu, and Turkish, including several by 13th-century mystic and poet Amir Khosrau Dehlavi who's credited with inventing the Qawwali and, like Ali, was born in Persia and raised in India and renditions of Persian and Turkish folk songs. The second, my favorite, delivers acoustic versions of the first disc's tracks eons away from the ecstatic pop of Googoosh, but as lush and appealing as the recordings by influential '80s world-music crossover stars like Najma.
For her part, Ali clearly opens the emotional floodgates on numbers like "Tamana" something to anticipate when she performs with her multi-instrumentalist husband, oud virtuoso Naser Musa and tabla player Salar Nader at Palace of Fine Arts Feb. 13.
It's a talent she may not have been able to offer to her native country "women are not allowed to perform there," she demurs though Niyaz has played in Dubai and Turkey, where Ali and Torkian plan to relocate soon, and it's made her popular with soundtrack composers looking for a sonic dose of the so-called Orient. Ali has sung on scores for films like The Matrix: Revolutions (2003) and TV shows such as Alias all of which was accomplished without an agent.
"You really can't support yourself doing the music we do," she confesses. "You don't do world music for money. I've been fortunate. I'm not proud of all the projects I've worked on, but it has worked for me, though I don't get to express myself doing that work. For the most part [clients] want the flavor they don't want something that is culturally specific. What a lot of Eastern music brings is just that kind of emotional intensity, that depth, they're looking for."
Instead she looks to Niyaz for that artistic fulfillment. "We work totally backwards from people who do most electronic records," she explains. They record all their acoustic elements, then deliver the tracks to producer-collaborator Carmen Rizzo (Coldplay).